By Jenie Fu
I was at home when I heard the news of my grandma’s failing health. I had a long day of work. The text message from my cousin said my grandmother was in 安寧病房 (an ning bin fang). I stared at those characters for a while. … and I thought “Peaceful Hospital Room” maybe? My Mandarin was rusty. I was really not sure but thought she was being treated at the hospital.
My grandmother had been ill for a while. She was diabetic, and a recent scan revealed a shadow on her spine. Her cancer had returned. At the age of 86, she had beaten cancer before – 3 times. She was a tough fighter with an incredible will to survive. I fell asleep thinking about my grandma and hoping for the best.
Next morning, as I shared the text with my husband it dawned on me that the words from the text message meant hospice. I googled around for confirmation…and there it was. I got a hold of my aunt in Taiwan, and she informed me that our grandma was not at all well. My feelings of concerns sank to despair. Grandma was unconscious. She was in a lot of pain. My aunt said there was probably not a lot of time.
I had this overwhelming urge to go home and see my grandma. Memories of our times together came rushing through my mind.
Although she’s my maternal grandmother, I called her 奶奶 (paternal grandmother) as a term of endearment. 奶奶 often made 酒酿 (jiu niang/sweet rice wine) for Lunar New Year. I would peek into the big, brown ceramic jar to sniff the rice wine, anticipating the rice wine pudding she would make for me. We used take 三輪車 (pedicab rides) to the open air market and get meats and vegetables (life before Uber). 奶奶 would make 猫耳朵 (mao er duo /cat-ear noodles) for lunch.
We had no running water in the house at the time, so while she scrubbed away the laundry on a wooden washboard, I played with the water pump and splashed puddles in the yard.
奶奶把我帶大的。My grandmother raised me.
If there was the slightest probability that I could see her in person, then I would try. I was battling against time! I cleared my schedule for the next few days, worked out the family schedule with my husband, and booked the earliest flight possible from NYC to Taipei.
Later that evening, my grandmother passed away. Fate had defeated me.
But I’m going anyways.
I don’t know what I will find on the other side of the world when I get there, but I hope for some way of saying goodbye to my grandmother.
So many things remind me of the Taiwan I know. The rain drifts in and out with the passing storm clouds. There is a familiar smell in the air…. like banana leaves. Low lying clouds gather around the base of tall mountains. There are mountains everywhere in Taiwan. Mopeds and scooters cluster at the front of each street intersection. In Taiwanese cities, sidewalks function as parking spots and outdoor restaurant extensions; pedestrians must share. Bright neon lights define city skylines amid mountains. I’m eager to return home.
Yet nothing is familiar at the same time. I don’t recognize any of the street names. Boulevards are filled with brands and department stores I don’t know. My childhood home in 士林區 (Shihlin District, Taipei) is long gone, and my family has resettled in 臺中市 (Taichung City). I attempt to pull up google maps to orient myself, but I give up after a while and just let the cab driver take over. I’m in a foreign place.
I was very grateful to see my relatives. They told me about my grandmother’s last few days, and they said that she died in peace. My aunt explained to me Chinese funeral rites and preparations in place for my grandmother’s final resting place.
In a span of 36 hours, I said my last goodbyes, met brand new baby cousins, reconnected with aunts and uncles, and traveled to two different cities, all the while staying connected to my husband and kids back in the States via Skype. In this whirlwind trip that defied jet lag and geography, I felt simultaneously connected to ALL of my family.
If I had to draw a place to represent my home or homeland, it would be a geographic collage of New York City, my current home in the Hudson Valley, my hometown Houston, and Taiwan, all stitched together like Pangea. I can’t physically be in all of those places at once, yet I am a composite of all of my experiences from those places.
The other day, I discovered a word: hiraeth – a Welsh word which means homesickness for a home you cannot return, a home which maybe never was.
Reading this strange looking word brought a sudden rush of emotions. I will never find this home I’m looking for. But now I understand.
Jenie Fu is a co-curator at Swell Travel, and also the co-owner of OgoSport, an active lifestyle toy company. Jenie travels quite a bit for work and fun, solo and with her family and friends.
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